Many non-native plants are grown in gardens and many people recognize that these plants are attractive to bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and other songbirds that gardeners like to attract. There is a small group of people who want to restrict the use of plants to those that are native. The “official” designation of an invasive plant states that the plant does more harm than good in an environment and that was introduced from another area. But some of the non-natives that are listed as invasive species are actually quite beneficial to wildlife and pollinators.
Most people don’t even recognize how many non-native species of plants gardens, lawns, and even what is considered wild areas, actually contain. The USDA actually introduced many of the species now considered to be invasive. And the truth is some of those species are still quite useful to wildlife and pollinators. Often these plants should not be treated as dangerous invaders, but rather as useful additions to the landscape and wild areas. They are often saviors, rather than destroyers of an environment.
The idea that some plants can cause destruction and disappearance of native species by the sole act of showing up in a habitat is slowly fading as we learn more about how ecosystems actually work. Many people are actually questioning what long term harm invasive species have actually done, except for the hours of work and millions of dollars spent trying to remove them. Evidence of harm that is often cited by those “native only” proponents is usually based on decades old, small, unscientific research projects or even on assumptions.
More recent, unbiased research has found that nature is remarkably resilient and adaptable. Invasive species usually take hold in environments that have changed and that are no longer suitable for certain native species. The environment is more suitable for the new species and so it gains an advantage. And this doesn’t cause a cascade of lost species. The new ecosystem isn’t worse than the old, just different.
Pollinators of all sorts, especially the non-native honey bees, are struggling to survive in many areas today. Some songbirds and other animals are also having a hard time adjusting to many environmental changes, climate, encroachment of man, and pollution among them. Any plants that can grow in the changed ecosystem that can help them should be welcomed and encouraged.
Some non-native plant Nazi’s are actually urging gardeners to purge their gardens of plants grown for centuries as ornamentals. They are rather selective in that endeavor of course. You don’t see them telling people to destroy apple trees or lilacs, for instance, even though the trees have spread far and wide. Carrots and broccoli are still allowed in vegetable gardens among other non-native crops, and herbal gardens abound with non-natives.
So this article is going to list some plants that are quite helpful and friendly to bees, butterflies, song birds and other wildlife. If you want more of these critters on your property and you want to help maintain pollinator populations you may want to grow them. Many of these plants may be on various plant terrorist “watch lists” and you may not be able to purchase them. But if you have them already don’t let someone scare you into removing them if you like wildlife and want to help pollinators. The dirty little secret is that few places actually have laws in place that can make you remove them or punish you for having them.
Sure, native species also help sustain pollinators and other wildlife and if you can find them, and if they will still grow well in your area, it’s great to plant them. But don’t rule out or exclude non-natives if you want to help wildlife and attract more of it to your garden or property. If the plant is useful to members of an ecosystem then it should be welcomed.
Dames Rocket (Hesperis Matronalis)
Why this pretty, harmless plant is targeted by the non-native haters is puzzling. Yes this short lived perennial spreads quickly but it usually takes over in less than ideal places like along roads, at the edges of parking lots and in disturbed areas with less than ideal soil, and in gardens, where it is often encouraged. And in those areas where useful native plants are often lacking it provides a bounty of early season nectar for bees and butterflies. Beekeepers love it.
Dames Rocket grows to about 3 feet tall. It’s usually lavender, but sometimes pink or white, clusters of flowers are phlox like, but the plants aren’t related. It has a sweet honey scent and is as pretty in the garden as in a vase. Butterflies flock to it and early hummingbirds will also visit it. Some people gather the early shoots for spring greens so it’s useful to humans too. It dies back by mid-summer, which allows other plants to take its space. It reproduces by seed, contained in long narrow pods. Make sure to let some seed dry and fall each year to keep it in the garden. You can still buy seed for this plant in some garden catalogs. Another way to get the plant is to find where it’s growing along the roadside and collect seed.
Once widely touted as a garden plant that attracted butterflies and even given the common name of Butterfly Bush, buddleia is now being frowned on by the plant purists because of the possibility it might spread to wilderness areas. In the south it has occasionally escaped and proliferated- with no obvious harm- but in colder zones 5-6 it rarely goes beyond the garden. In fact some of the numerous cultivars of buddleia won’t even survive one winter in northern gardens.
Buddleia attracts butterflies, such as red admirals, red spotted purples, skippers, and tiger swallowtails, the hummingbird moth, as well as a lot of different native bees, honey bees and even hummingbirds. The long flower spikes offer color in the garden as well as a nectar source in late summer when it’s often needed. Hummingbirds often feed on the plants late into the evening.
Don’t worry about planting buddleia. There are dozens of species, colors and many mature sizes among the plants and buying the plants is rarely restricted. They are found in most garden catalogs and shops.
Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria)
Yes this one got a lot of negative press in the last century. It supposedly choked waterways and displaced native plants. It was a bit of a bully early in its colonization of American marshlands, but in most places it has settled in to being part of, not the entire ecosystem. Some of this has come from pest insects adapting or being imported to control it but some researchers also think that pollution control efforts in the last few decades may have also given it less of an advantage. It grew better in polluted waters than some native plants.
What isn’t often told that not only is the plant pretty with its bright purple spires of flowers, it also provides pollen and nectar for a wide range of species. Honey bees, bumble bees, all kinds of native bees and many butterflies such as the common sulfur and wood nymph all flock to the plants when they bloom. In fact purple loosestrife produces more and better quality pollen and nectar than the native Lythrum salicaria. That’s often cited as a reason we should destroy the plant, because the native plant will produce fewer seeds. But the two don’t often grow in the same areas anyway, and if we are thinking about the protecting all the species in an environment purple loosestrife would seem to be a winner.
You’ll probably need to collect seeds or dig up wild plants if you want the plant in your landscape. It prefers moist areas but can grow in other areas if kept irrigated.
Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellate)
Now here is a plant that our own USDA once sold as a wildlife food and cover resource. This small tree or large shrub can spread rapidly, and soon the non-native plant people were alarmed and began to preach against the plant. You may notice that it will take over abandoned pastures and cropland quite quickly. But here’s the thing. The places where it rapidly proliferates are usually low in fertility, damaged and compacted soil areas. Since autumn olive takes nitrogen from the air and puts it in the soil it actually improves soil. Other trees growing near it actually show a boost in growth. It provides cover and browse for deer and other wildlife and begins the transition from bare land to forest.
The flowers of autumn olive are inconspicuous but the sweet smell of them will drift for long distances. The shrubs will be buzzing with bees in no time, it is an excellent nectar source and a nice honey is made from it. Butterflies and even hummingbirds also visit the flowers. The flowers turn into red berries which are food for many species of songbirds, who often visit the patches of autumn olive on migration flights. All kinds of wildlife from mice to bears enjoy the fruits. Even humans like the berries; they can be made into jams and jellies and are very high in lycopene, an important human nutrient.
You can still buy autumn olive plants in some states. It’s usually easy to spot the plants in some abandoned field to collect berries or small plants.
Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum)
Teasel is another foreign invader that grows along roadsides and in waste areas. It is tall with a blue thistle-like flower that turns into a spiny pod that is attractive in dried flower arrangements and was once used to comb out wool. It does spread by seed but once again where it grows is seldom a place that other plants thrive in.
Teasel is an excellent winter food source for small birds who relish the seeds.
White clover, sweet clover, red clover
Most clovers are non-native species and many of them are now being discouraged as food sources for wildlife or even livestock because they are non-native. But clovers are one of the favored bee plants and make great honey. They are also excellent feed for deer or elk. Leaving clover in the lawn will help keep rabbits from damaging other plants because clover is one of their favorite foods.
Clovers are another plant that improves poor soil. Some like Crimson clover are very ornamental. Don’t be afraid to plant clovers of any kind in your landscape.
Crown vetch (Securigera varia)
This is another plant introduced by the USDA for erosion control and as a possible forage plant for cattle. It is now called an invasive species. It will spread rapidly in sunny areas, even in poor soils and really isn’t suitable for a garden. But if you have a patch of unused land or a steep bank you need to cover this plant is extremely useful. And crown vetch is very helpful to a wide range of wildlife. Like most plants considered to be invasive this plant generally thrives where other native plants are struggling.
Crown vetch is a sprawling, thick plant that in summer is covered with pink and white pea-like flowers arranged in a circular clusters or crown pattern. It will also be covered with bees and butterflies when it is bloom, to the extent the whole patch will be buzzing and may be dangerous to wade through. Bees and butterflies love this plant for its nectar. It is also a larval food source for some butterflies, including the Melissa blue, Orange Sulfur, and Wild Indigo Duskywing. The flowers make seed which is eaten by a number of birds and small animals.
The thick cover the plant makes is home to ground nesting birds and rabbits. Deer, elk, moose and other wildlife graze it. It’s good grazing for cattle and sheep but non-ruminants like horses shouldn’t be allowed to eat it because it is toxic to them. The seed of this plant can still be purchased in some catalogs or you can dig up small plants.
Japanese knotweed (Fallopia japonica formerly Polygonum cuspidatum)
Here is another plant portrayed as a terrible villain. It is very fast spreading and like wisteria and trumpet vines, can damage pavement, homes or buildings. But it is also pretty, smells good in bloom and loved by pollinators. The plants can grow as high as 8 feet and it will grow in any soil, sun or shade. It has hollow, bamboo like stems. It blooms in late summer, pretty white foamy clusters when nectar flowers are in short supply. Bees love this plant and a special honey, called bamboo honey, is sold by some bee keepers. It would make an excellent hedge or screen that is also helpful to pollinators.
Japanese knotweed dies to the ground each fall. Its stems can be collected and dried, cut into small pieces and bundled together for homes for mason bees and other tunnel dwellers. Some people eat the shoots of Japanese knotweed in the spring as a green. You’ll have to start pieces of the root- which is very easy to do, to get a start for this plant. You will probably never find it being sold. And it is one of the few plants that the government in your area may come and destroy, although that’s not likely. In Michigan it is illegal to grow the plant. But an official from MDNR, Susan Tangora, said there is no way to force you to remove the plants on your property.
Non-native honeysuckles: Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica), Lonicera tartarica, L. morrowii, L. x bella, Amur honeysuckle (Lonicera maackii)
Once again these non-native honeysuckles are much abused by non-native plant Nazi’s despite many of them once being USDA introductions for the purpose of supporting wildlife. Many of these are widespread already in “wild” areas and could be considered naturalized citizens. Japanese honeysuckle is found almost everywhere in the Eastern US.
Some honeysuckles are vines, others bush forms. Most green up early in spring. Flowers vary from white and yellow, small tubular flowers to long red trumpets. Some are highly fragrant like the Japanese honeysuckle. But one thing is true; the honeysuckle flowers are loved by bees and hummingbirds which flock to the plants. And when the flowers turn to berries they become a magnet for bluebirds, robins, tufted titmouse, northern bobwhite, American goldfinch, northern mockingbird, and others. Birds also nest in honeysuckle bushes and vines.
Bush type honeysuckles can make a hedge or screen that’s also good for wildlife. Some honeysuckles can be added to gardens. Many types of honeysuckles are still sold. There are also native honeysuckles, but many of them aren’t as attractive to pollinators and birds as some of the non-natives. Don’t be afraid to plant honeysuckles to attract wildlife and help pollinators.
Other non-native plants to consider
All types of fruit trees are attractive to pollinators and most are not native. Even if an apple tree doesn’t provide good fruit it’s excellent as a source for spring pollen and nectar and fall fruit crops for deer and other animals.
Weeds in the lawn, many of which are non-natives, should be left for pollinators. These include dandelions, purple dead nettle, and ajuga. Kentucky bluegrass, the most common lawn grass, despite the name, is a non-native plant anyway and virtually useless for wildlife. If the weeds spread so much the better for wildlife.
Herbs are for the most part non-native but many of them are great for pollinators. Catnip, lavender, thyme, oregano, marjoram, dill, comfrey, Lemon balm, fennel, and rosemary all attract bees and butterflies. Some also spread rapidly, like comfrey and lemon balm, even to “wild’ areas but are seldom labeled invasive. And they can be quite pleasing and useful to humans too.
Some common garden flowers other than buddleia are now being discouraged because they are non- native. These include Russian sage, day lilies, various salvias, calendula, scabiosa, hollyhocks, petunias, and many other things. This is silly. Plant the flowers you like in your garden. Many of them, including tropicals will attract and feed bees, hummingbirds and butterflies. They will take nothing away from native plants. They don’t cause extinctions and almost all are harmless. Sometimes native plants will fare better in a spot, other times something non-native will grow better there. As long as there is any plant there you’re good.
There are no restrictions on immigrants in nature. Nature welcomes all that can come and contribute to the environment. It’s only humans that label and discriminate.
Here are some additional articles you may want to read.
Edible landscaping that provides fall color
How to identify pines, spruce and other evergreens
Garden catalogs for 2016
You can read the authors weekly garden blog here.